Laurel synagogue celebrates its inclusivity

Dedication of Oseh Shalom’s new building in 1991
Dedication of Oseh Shalom’s new building in 1991

Over its 50-year history, Oseh Shalom synagogue has expanded its reach beyond its base in Laurel, says Rabbi Doug Heifetz.

“Once upon a time, we were a neighborhood congregation. Now we’re a regional synagogue,” he says. “Most people travel from all over to us — from Kensington, Annapolis, Rockville and Gaithersburg.”

What sustains the synagogue is its dedication to inclusivity, Heifetz and others say. That welcoming approach is grounded in Oseh Shalom’s Reconstructionist principles.

“The people of Oseh have immense hearts, and they really care in a nonjudgmental way,” says lifelong congregant Mikey Hess Webber, 32. “The synagogue is like my home. It embodies different times of my life.”

A teacher at the congregation’s religious school for three years, Hess Webber will begin her studies at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia in August.

She’ll still be able to take part in the barbecues and Shabbat morning hikes that the congregation will have this summer to mark a half-century since a group of families came together to found it.

In March, Oseh Shalom threw a gala to celebrate the anniversary. It included a display of photographs and news clippings from the synagogue’s history.

“It was a joy to contribute memories,” says Lynne Gaynes Kaplan, the congregation’s president.

“We are future-focused as well as tradition-inspired, made stronger by our welcoming spirit and by our embracing of diversity.”

Sixteen families formed the Jewish Congregation of Laurel in 1966. In 1973, it adopted the name Oseh Shalom, or “doer of peace.” The congregation dedicated its current building in 1991. Today, Oseh Shalom is home to close to 250 families.

Hess Webber embodies the Reconstructionist synagogue’s inclusivity and blend of traditional culture, modern spirituality and Jewish values.

“My dad was raised Methodist, and my mom was Reform,” she says. “It’s cool that they joined this Reconstructionist synagogue, and raised their Jewish kids together.”

Oseh Shalom “has grown in its diversity,” she adds. “It’s not just white Jewish kids anymore. Being Jewish means a lot of different things.”

Hess Webber says she was inspired by Rabbi Gary Fink, who led the congregation when she was growing up. “He commanded a lot of respect. It was a magnet for people,” she says.

Fink came to Oseh Shalom in 1980 and became rabbi emeritus when Heifetz joined the congregation in 2006.

Hess Webber expressed her gratitude to Oseh Shalom for her spiritual and professional growth on Sunday during the congregation’s annual meeting.

“It just really feels like a family at Oseh Shalom,” she says.

Reconstructionism, specifically at Oseh Shalom, “has always been a welcoming community,” Heifetz says. “Not just for pious prayer, but for instilling Jewish literature, art [and] cooking. We strive to continue being inclusive,” he says.

Like Hess Webber’s parents, Sharon Cohen and Richard Cerkovnik are an interfaith couple. They joined Oseh Shalom in 2010.

“This synagogue has been very welcoming. I would say overall that it’s a very diverse congregation, and I never felt uncomfortable coming in with my husband,” Cohen says. “I didn’t know much about Reconstructionism. I’ve learned as I’ve gone.”

While her husband remains Catholic, the couple’s 12-year-old triplets are being raised as Jewish. Hess Webber is their b’nai mitzvah teacher.

Cohen, who teaches at the religious school, says her husband “feels good, and if he wanted to be more involved [there], he can be. The congregation made me see that there’s not one way to be Jewish. There are many ways to incorporate Judaism in your life.”

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  1. Dana and I moved to Laurel in 1979. Our daughter, Jennifer, was in the first Oseh Shalom class from kindergarten until high school graduation. Oseh Shalom was a haven, a way of life, and Dana was in Rabbi Fink’s first B’nai mitzvah class (and do I have a story about that). Inclusion was the watchword then, as it is now. If you want to know more please let me know, as we now live in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

    Dr. Jacob R. Raitt


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